Italy's fears realised as Costa Rica triumph
Mario Balotelli didn't get the kiss on the cheek he wanted from her royal highness Queen Elizabeth II in exchange for a win by Italy that would have kept England's slim hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages alive at least for another four days. Instead, the Italy striker and his teammates received a 1-0 slap in the face from a Costa Rica team that merit consideration as the revelation of the World Cup so far.
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Some thought Italy manager Cesare Prandelli exaggerated when he claimed this match was the one he feared most when the groups were drawn back in the winter. The papers believed he was making Costa Rica out to be better than they really were to focus his players' minds and ensure they did not underestimate their opponent. But Prandelli meant it. From the tape he had studied, Costa Rica had earned his respect. Their 3-1 win against Uruguay in their World Cup opener further justified his opinion. Costa Rica's performance on Friday will not have come as a surprise to him, even if it is a shock that Costa Rica join Spain and Brazil as the only teams to have beaten Prandelli's side in a competitive match over the last four years.
Italy didn't play to the standard they set in their win against England in Manaus on Saturday. The setup was the same, but the personnel were different. Keeper Gianluigi Buffon returned from injury, and while he did make a decent stop against Christian Bolanos in the first half, Buffon appeared a little rusty and didn't inspire confidence coming for crosses. His timing sometimes seemed off.
With Mattia De Sciglio still out, the ambidextrous Matteo Darmian, one of Italy's star performers at the weekend, was moved from right-back to left to allow Giorgio Chiellini to move back into the centre of defence alongside Andrea Barzagli after Gabriel Paletta's poor showing. That meant the relationship Darmian struck up with Antonio Candreva down the right flank -- one of the Azzurri's principal strengths against England -- was broken up. Ignazio Abate could not replicate the same effect. Out of form and often on the bench toward the end of the season at AC Milan, he frequently took up the wrong positions and was at fault on Costa Rica's goal, leaving Junior Diaz time to cross for Bryan Ruiz to head beyond Buffon.
Issues at the back were compounded by Italy's inability to impose their "Tikitalia" style. Marco Verratti's lack of fitness meant Thiago Motta came in for him in midfield. While he is a much better at making the play than many observers give him credit for, too often he slowed Italy down. Not dynamic enough, he doesn't carry the ball forward like his younger Paris Saint-Germain teammate, and it contributed to Italy often being too deep. Overall, Italy's play was slow, predictable and imprecise.
Costa Rica, it must also be said, pressed well and with intelligence. Their line was high, just as it had been against Uruguay. They made it difficult for Italy to play out. It was a courageous tactic from Costa Rica manager Jorge Luis Pinto because the solution to it seemed simple, and it appeared Andrea Pirlo found it: balls over the top and in behind for the pacy Balotelli to run on to. That very nearly yielded a goal for Italy after half an hour. Pirlo played a jaw-dropping first-time pass, but Balotelli's heavy touch let him down. He never really had control of the ball and his lob was wayward.
One of the reasons Costa Rica appear so confident in playing with their back five so advanced became apparent minutes later. Released again, Balotelli's hooked shot was saved comfortably by goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Though straight at him, having a shot-stopper like him behind you -- genuinely one of the top 15 in his position in the world -- provides Costa Rica with great security. Their offside trap was also executed with bravura. It caught Italy out no fewer than 11 times.
Prandelli sought to change things after the interval. Italy were fortunate to go in only 1-0 down considering Joel Campbell had a clear penalty denied following a challenge from Chiellini. In the second half, Antonio Cassano came on for the disappointing Motta. He was followed by Lorenzo Insigne and Alessio Cerci, who replaced Candreva and Claudio Marchisio as Italy morphed into a 4-2-3-1. But they couldn't make the difference. Cassano didn't manage to spark the team into life, and the attacking width Prandelli introduced failed to stretch Costa Rica. It was perplexing that Ciro Immobile remained on the bench. Excellent at playing on the shoulder of defenders and breaking beyond the last line of defence, he perhaps would have been better-suited than Balotelli for getting in behind Costa Rica.
Playing at 1 p.m. local time, in temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and with humidity at 80 percent, also drained Italy. Costa Rica are more used to these conditions. But Prandelli said beforehand that it couldn't be used as an excuse because Italy's preparations had been so thorough -- they trained in a sauna for Manaus and practiced in Recife at the same time of day as kickoff on Thursday.
Italy now have to bounce back. Friday's match was a reality check. Make no mistake about it, this wasn't a humiliation, such as the one they suffered against North Korea in 1966. That would be disrespectful to Costa Rica. They are ranked 28th in the world. As a team, they are better than the sum of their parts, with a good collective and strong tactical identity. As Daniele De Rossi said before the game: "You cannot think Italy will beat Costa Rica just because we are called Italy."
Parallels have been drawn with Euro '96 when the Azzurri started well, vanquishing Russia 2-1 at Anfield only to succumb to Czech Republic, draw with Germany (both eventual finalists) and not get out of the group. This is different. A draw against Uruguay in Natal on Tuesday, such as the one Italy recorded in the third-place playoff during last summer's Confederations Cup, will be enough to see the Azzurri through to the knockout stage. They have a superior goal difference. It sounds simple, doesn't it? Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez showed last night though that it will be anything but.